SEATTLE "When the fish strikes, reel him in gently," the captain said. "When he's jerkin', let him jerk. When he's not jerkin', reel to beat the band."
This was before sunup in August, and Gary Krein, the owner of All Star Fishing Charters out of nearby Everett, was trying to provide the simplest instructions possible to the gang of novices who had roused themselves at this early hour. But of course we were going to screw it up. If a fish jerked on one of our lines, we'd surely yank and reel with all the finesse of a monster truck driving across a row of fourth-hand El Caminos. This band of brothers was going to be a bunch of band-beaters, advice to reel "gently" be damned.
For on the deck of The Morning Star that morning, while the stars were still out, were an accomplished group of indoorsmen.
Ethan Stowell, with a fuzzy beard in need of a mow, is a chef, and apparently a reputable one, with three restaurants in the city.
Vince Dean, whose boxy cap and cigarillo habit had his friends calling him "Fidel," owns a graphic design studio.
Brian Rodgers is a broad, mustachioed, jocular software engineer.
Jake Sullivan, wearing the Seahawks shirt, works for a firm that develops in-store displays.
Steve Mack, with the perpetually tousled blonde hair, has a day job with an Internet media firm and plays bass for an indie pop band, a throwback to the '80s, when he fronted a band he says had a terrific local following in a little continent called Europe.
They were there to make a half-day trip into Puget Sound to fish for salmon during perhaps the best time of year to do so. At a certain point, it seems like something every local there should do. Salmon may be identified with Seattle more closely than any other wild animal to any other big American city save perhaps flamingos to Miami, or rats to New York.
Gary also explained I would be tagging along on their excursion. No one had a problem with being interviewed and photographed, but someone did ask how we would be dispatching the fish we caught.
The captain indicated a small wooden billy club with a finger-length hook at its end, hanging over the rail. "The attitude adjuster," as it came to be called, delighted this crew to no end.
Introductions through, Krein backed up his craft, a 28-foot 1972 Uniflite Salty Dog he's had since he began chartering, 23 years ago ("I've logged more than 40,000 hours at this wheel," he said at one point), and we motored west into the Sound.
A jagged spur of Pacific Ocean that would allow a boater on the Canadian border to wind his way halfway to Oregon, Puget Sound is an estuary unique in the world. Fresh water from the temperate rain forest on Olympic Peninsula to the west merges with the ocean water and runoff from the geologically young sediment around the Sound, all within ka-boom distance of Mount Rainier, the fifth-tallest mountain in the lower 48.
"Mount Fujiyama," Brian said as The Morning Star pulled across the Sound, revealing Rainier to us as a hovering apparition of a mountain, floating on a low cloud bed. Salmon and Rainier together are so iconic here that Washington's state quarter carries an image of the fish jumping out of the water in front of that mountain.
When I mentioned the oft-repeated forecast that Rainier would one day go all Mount St. Helens on Seattle, Steve shrugged it off. "It's just going to take out eastern Washington," he said, "because prevailing winds blow east. We'll just have a front-row seat."
Far be it from me to question the volcanological expertise of a bass player, especially when the morning was shaping up like something off a fishing calendar. Behind the cliffs to our east, the sun stained the sky a salutatory yellow, and lit a curtain of cirrus clouds the light pink hue of our quarry.
While Vince and Steven chatted on the port side and Ethan and Brian on the starboard, Jake sat on a cooler with his feet propped up on the stern, watching the boat kick up spume against the sunrise.
"Every morning," the captain said, "I'm just thrilled at my office."
In these waters, salmon often feed by blasting themselves through a school of shad, hurling their bodies into the smaller fish, and returning to sup on the injured. When they attack a lure, salmon are liable to take the hook well outside their mouths in the side or tail, even. To protect black salmon from themselves, treble hooks are illegal, and depending on where the fish hooks itself, reeling in any of these fish can become a crap shoot.
"When it happens," the captain said, "it's gonna happen ASAP."
Once the lures are rigged, though, hooking them becomes almost automatic. Behind the boat are four poles, three of which are on downriggers, which hold the lures at a desired depth (usually at least 12 feet here) as the boat languidly zig-zags along the surface. While the captain stayed busy hooking and rigging, watching his electronics and yelling for someone to please steer the boat away from the crab traps, the passengers had little more to do than drink cans of Tecate and cups of Heineken from a mini-keg stowed in Brian's duffle. Our instructions were to wait for a rod to bob, then hop to it.
When Ethan, the restaurateur, began organizing the rotation, Brian chided him for displaying even this much initiative. "You're so organized," Brian told him. "What are you, a boss or something? It's a fishing trip, for God's sakes."
"The first thing that happens when you get a fish?" Ethan replied. "You're gonna spill that beer all over me."
Soon Jake cried, "Fish on! Fish on!" and Brian had the wherewithal to hand off his beer before rushing to the nodding pole. As he reeled and yanked, Gary brought out the net.
"Fish off," Gary said.
"Gary, what did I do wrong, so I know," Brian asked.
"You've got to lift him gently into the net, not out of the water," the captain replied. "You're trying to net him, not fly him."
Soon the captain pulled up the lines and headed east, then due north, passing over water more than 200 feet deep, closer to a bank of bluffs on the south side of a peninsula. And it was here Steve took his turn, pulling in the most important fish of the day the first.
"Lift him into the net!" the captain cried as Steve, in a light jacket and sunglasses, reeled the 5-or-so-pound coho (a type of salmon also known as a "silver salmon") to the stern.
When net found fish, a cheer went up from the men onboard, and they clapped and raised their beers in the air. "Adjust the attitude!" someone yelled, and like that, the captain reached for the grooved club and gave the fish a clean knock atop the skull with an audible thump. With death made real, Brian blurted an expletive. The fish flinched, then was still.
The captain re-set the baits, then ripped the fish's gills with his finger and gave the bleeding corpse to Steve, who pointed it at his friends for his obligatory man photos. He calmed as he admired the fish. "Poor bastard," he told it. "Sorry. You're dinner tonight."
At once, another fish was on, and Vince jumped to the reel. But this one turned out to be a chinook.
"Black gum," the captain said. "A king. He's got to go back." Without ado, he tossed the fish back in the water. At the time, between chinook seasons, we were consigned to keeping only coho.
As the commotion subsided, Steve sent a text with his iPhone: "Caught one!"
By then, the sun had melted most of the clouds away from the Olympics, suddenly a presence to the west, their visible tendrils of snow a reminder that August is relative.
Jake and Ethan both snared nice fish, but both were kings, and had to go back. When Brian pulled in a little coho, the captain remarked, "That's not the monster of the day, but it's a fish."
The monster of Gary's career was a 38-pound, 6-ounce salmon that came on one of these towing runs. He hired a young woman to help sell charters, and to show her what they were all about, he brought her along on one, and it was she who hooked the giant. "That was years ago," he said, "when you could keep wild salmon."
No one there was thrilled that all these king salmon had to be released.
"The fishing laws here are out of control," Vince said.
Added Jake: "You can't even fish for spotted owls anymore."
'Throw him back'
After several passes through the treacherous crab pot fields near the peninsular hamlet of Indianola, we headed back to the Bainbridge Island side of the Sound a hair desperate, in fact, since only Steve, Jake and Brian by that time had yet to land keepers.
"Hey, Ethan, where's your fish?" Brian said. "Still in the ocean, isn't it?"
"You're about to be, too," Ethan replied.
"Fish on, baby!" Vince hollered. Then it was fish right back off. The 8 a.m. dry spell had descended. The men took bets when the next fish would bite. (Steve won with 8:42 a.m., but even that one came off.) Brian proposed the use of hand grenades.
A voice crackled over the radio. "There's a good bunch of weeds between you and me," another boat captain told Gary.
"I'm more interested in a good bunch of fish," he replied. Later, crackling again, salt in the wound: " we just had a 15-minute battle with a 15-pound fish "
Gary took this lull to offer the lot of us some background on salmon, which we found interesting at the time, in part because we were forming a bond with an animal that develops only after you club it on the head and toss it bleeding into a cooler. Apparently the ichthyology lecture became too much for Ethan, for he chose this opportunity to throw a pretzel nugget at a patch of thinning hair on the crown of Brian's head with such force it exploded into little pieces all over the boat. (The pretzel, that is, not Brian's head.)
"Ow!" Brian yelled. "How did you do that?" Sheer force and wicked aim was how, but Ethan was laughing too hard to explain himself. "This is what happens when people don't catch fish," Brian said, shaking off the initial shock. "Non-fishermen pick on the fishermen. It's happened for ages."
At about 10 after 10, our luck changed when Jake reeled in a snack-sized salmon. "It's a coho," Gary said. "It's a keeper. Does anybody want it?" We looked at the little fish dumbly. "No," Jake said. "Throw him back. Let him get bigger."
Like that, the fishing karma reversed itself. Suddenly Vince was hooked up, and as a second rod started nodding, Jake set his beer on the deck and grabbed it.
As Jake yanked and reeled, it became clear to Gary he had a worthwhile fish on the line and tried to offer instructions, but the excitement of two hook-ups after the drought turned the boat into an instant zoo, so when Gary held the net over the water, Jake didn't seem to understand what it was for until the captain yelled, "Swing that (expletive-ing) fish over here!"
Jake did. Gary netted it. Men cheered, hoisted their beers and snapped photos. When Jake realized he was too cheerful, he took on an expression like a heavyweight at a weigh-in. Gary apologized for barking orders, and Jake assured him there was no need, so long as it meant landing that pretty fish.
"That's a serious fish there," Brian said. The others concurred: "good eats," "beautiful." It was a hatchery fish Gary could tell by the missing adipose fin and perhaps 7 scrumptious pounds.
"Neither of us caught much of a fish," Steve told Brian. "That's a fish."
The boatwide schneid had ended. As his friends cheered him, Ethan finally got his coho, a little fella whose attitude Ethan adjusted himself. The fish kept moving until Gary showed Ethan the error of his method. Rather than club the side of the fish's face, the captain suggested, Ethan should turn it belly-down and whack it center-skull, right between the eyes. On his second try, Ethan thumped it a good one, and the fish quivered slightly before falling still. (Ever the chef, Ethan later was the only member of the group who insisted on taking his fish home whole, rather than as fillets.)
Vince finally got his fish, and all that was left, the men decided, was for their stowaway author to sully his own hands by catching one. A few minutes later, on the next available hook-up, I reeled in a fair-sized fish that, once attitude-adjusted, bled, cleaned, put on ice, marinated overnight in honey, cumin and soy sauce, baked in foil at 350 degrees for 12 minutes and served in generous portions to a dinner party of four, was an altogether marvelous creature.
It was Steve who wound up catching the trophy of the day a little later. By that time, the fishing had improved to the point where he could examine the 8-or-so-pounder and say, with sincerity, "Aw, it's hatchery. The other one was wild." He actually seemed a little more impressed with the fact he was able to drop his can of Tecate to the deck as he ran to the reel, and that it hadn't been kicked over. "Beer's still here!" he said.
The hour was approaching noon. We had learned how to differentiate wild from hatchery-born salmon, where best to apply an attitude adjustment, and, courtesy of a most blunt question from Brian, that Gary had in fact come across a dead body once, back when he was working on a lumber tugboat. The poor guy had jumped off a bridge on an icy night when a car was sliding at him. Gary's crew was moving logs a month later when they noticed the remains. With that image still hanging over us, we headed back for lunch.
Jake was going to head back to his office for a half-day. The rest thought him mad. Why spoil a day of wind and hooks and bloody hands and pretzel attacks by returning to any building without a decent IPA on tap? The others would have none of it. When comparing notes, Brian offered this summary of the day: "It feels good to do something manly."
We lunched Soundside, minutes from downtown, and then rejoined the urban hubbub with bags of freshly cleaned salmon to show for our detour.